A judge's decision in a sexual harassment case against the Honeybaked Ham Company is sending shockwaves through the legal community—and the trial hasn't even begun yet. The case, which is still in the discovery phase, took an interesting twist this week when a judge ruled that the 20 plaintiffs would be required to give their social media logins and passwords, as well as access to all of their text messages, to the defendant to use during the trial.
Honeybaked Ham was sued in 2011 by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after several women working in its Colorado locations claimed that they had been repeatedly sexually harassed by men working in the stores. According to the women, they had been called gender-based epithets that had been offensive to them, and had been repeatedly touched or groped by men in the workplace.
The plaintiffs brought suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits workplace gender discrimination. They alleged that the conduct of the men working at Honeybaked Ham had constituted both harassment and discrimination, and that a hostile workplace environment had been created by the repeated sexually inappropriate conduct.
However, when the women brought suit, Honeybaked Ham fought back, firing some of the women. When they sued for retaliation as well, Honeybaked Ham began asking for their social media information.
According to attorneys for Honeybaked Ham, the women who sued were alleging discrimination and that they had been damaged emotionally by their termination, but their social media profiles told a different story. One woman wore a shirt in a Facebook picture that used the same gender based epithet that she claimed had offended her when it was used by one of the other Honeybaked Ham employees.
The attorneys for Honeybaked Ham also maintain that several of the plaintiffs were having “sexually amorous communications” with each other, which they suggest may imply collusion among the plaintiff class.
The judge in the case ruled that because the Facebook information could be relevant to damages, it should be looked into. According to the judge, since the information would have been made available in the discovery process if it was on a public “Everything About Me” page, there should be no difference between that and things which may have been posted semi-privately or privately on Facebook.
This case will have significant implications for how people are able to use social media in the future. Attorneys for plaintiffs in sexual harassment lawsuits should make sure that their clients understand the very serious implications of discussing their case on Facebook or via text messages, and how these discussions can have a serious potential impact on their ability to collect damages.
It is very likely that regardless of how the Honeybaked Ham case is decided, an appeal will be forthcoming. The case is yet another example of how social media is changing the face of the law today, and even changing some of the basic questions being asked in legal cases.
Sources: eeoc.gov, westlaw.com